On 16 June 2015, the Maritime Safety Commission of the IMO adopted new vessel routing measures aimed at reducing the risk of marine casualties and related pollution from large vessels operating in the vicinity of Alaska’s Aleutian Island archipelago.  The measures designate five areas to be avoided (“ATBAs”) in the Aleutian Island region, which essentially create a buffer extending no more than approximately 50 miles from the shoreline.  The ATBAs lie within the Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) of the United States.  The routing measures will apply to vessels 400 gross tons or more on international voyages in the region transiting the Great Circle Route, and will be implemented on 1 January 2016.

Although most vessels maintain a safe distance from the coast, vessels have been observed in close proximity to the shoreline.  The buffer is intended to add valuable time for emergency repairs or response efforts to assist a distressed vessel, and to decrease the chances of grounding due to negligent navigation and/or adverse weather conditions.  The routing measures intend to minimize course alterations due to the ATBAs and generally allow vessels to follow existing traffic patterns, including use of the Unimak Pass fairway.

The new routing measures acknowledge the highly variable weather conditions, remoteness, sparse infrastructure, and limited response capabilities that are characteristic of the Aleutian Islands region.  Many of the vessels transiting the region do so in innocent passage, and are not subject to United States  or Alaska oil spill prevention and response requirements.  International shipping traffic is expected to increase considerably in the region in the coming decades.  These considerations, coupled with the archipelago’s environmental sensitivity (the region includes a National Marine Wildlife Refuge) and community reliance on local fisheries, make the Aleutian Islands a high-risk region in terms of vulnerability to hazards from international shipping.

The ATBAs were created as part of a comprehensive regional risk assessment undertaken after the 2004 grounding of the M/V SELENDANG AYU, a bulk carrier driven aground near Unalaska Island by a winter storm after she suffered an engine failure in the Bering Sea.  The SELENDANG AYU ultimately broke in half, discharging nearly 350,000 gallons of bunker and diesel fuel into the ocean.  Six crewmembers were tragically lost during a rescue attempt by the United States Coast Guard.

Further details regarding the new vessel routing measures can be found by clicking here.